The big question going into The Last Jedi was one of identity. The Force Awakens was a safe retread of well worn ground, Disney’s reassurance to the fans that the franchise is in safe hands. And for the most part, it worked. The characters were likable enough, the set pieces were exciting and the tone was right. The Force Awakens felt like Star Wars. But Disney couldn’t rest on nostalgia forever, and if The Last Jedi ended up being another safe retelling of a story we already knew, the franchise and its legacy would be in deep trouble. Fortunately for us, Episode 8 does try to shake things up and get us to rethink what we know about Star Wars. In achieving that, however, it stumbles in a few areas that keep it from being the expectation shattering film it wants to be.
To his credit, Rian Johnson doesn’t care what fans wanted out of this film. Theories and questions that have been swirling around the minds of the more zealous since the release of The Force Awakens are thrown out the window pretty much from the get go. And trying to distance itself from expectation is what works best in the film. We were all on the edge of our seats when Rey finally met Luke at the end of Awakens, eager to find out what would happen next. Him casually tossing the lightsaber aside was probably the furthest thing from our minds. Luke has become a worn out, beaten old man, not wanting to be a hero and questioning both the role of the light side of the force as well as his legacy. If you took down the Galactic Empire and saved your father from the dark side, only to see another great evil take its place, wouldn’t you feel the same way? And Luke isn’t the only one who doesn’t turn out the way you thought. Kylo Ren (the best character in the new saga, bar none), very early on decides it’s time to stop being a Darth Vader fan boy and strike his own path. Poe isn’t the dashing rogue that Han Solo was, swooping in with a quip and saving the day. His actions here have dire consequences, something we didn’t get enough of in the original trilogy with the aforementioned smuggler. The character archetypes we are used to in these films have been upended, and the film is better off for it.
Failure is everywhere in this film. Rey has understandable lapses in judgement as she comes to grip with her newly awakened powers. The Resistance fails. A lot. And not fail because their foe is more cunning, or because they are just out gunned, they fail because they are inexperienced and impulsive. But the characters aren’t the only things here that fail. There are times when the script makes pretty questionable decisions and the middle section of the film really suffers for it. Why doesn’t Laura Dern’s character just let Poe know what her plan is from the start? Did we really need to see him put more people’s lives needlessly in danger? The whole Finn goes to Monte Carlo plotline was unnecessary and filled with coincidences and some poor writing. I understand that the filmmakers felt like they needed to give him something to do, but he could have just stayed in a coma and all the movie would have lost was about 20 minutes off its runtime. And there was definitely a better way to take Leia out of commission for a bit than THAT.
Those missteps, while they did not ruin the film for me, did detract from the main attractions of Rey, Kylo, and Luke enough to knock the overall experience down a peg or two. In the end, the Last Jedi is an overall enjoyable, albeit uneven film that is sure to go down as one of the most discussed in and argued about entries in the franchise. It’s not the second coming of Empire, nor is as bad as the prequels. What it is is an attempt to move the Star Wars saga into new territory and its ultimate legacy won’t be if it’s a good film or not. The Last Jedi will be remembered either as the turning point for storytelling in the franchise or where Disney decided to go back and play it safe and blow up a few more spherical super lasers. I know what I want.